It sounds like an idea from a bad science-fiction novel. Kuwait is planning to build an enormous DNA database that would compile the genetic makeup not only of citizens living in the Persian Gulf state but also of other residents and even temporary visitors. Such a database would be the first of its kind in the world.
It requires a huge amount of effort to make this idea a reality. It would mean that more than 1.3 million citizens and 2.9 million expatriates would be entered into the database, plus many more visitors. The cost of the project has been estimated at $400 million. There would be serious punishments for those who resist: Refusing the compulsory testing could mean a year in jail or a $33,000 fine, while anyone caught providing fake samples risks seven years' imprisonment.
It all raises a question: Why would anyone actually want all that DNA?
Kuwait's government says the database could be used to fight terrorism and crime. The proposal was adopted last July, just a week after a suicide bombing in a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City killed 27 people and wounded many more. The attack was later claimed by the Islamic State's Saudi affiliate. "We are in a state of war," Interior Minister Sheikh Mohammed Khaled al-Sabah said at the time.
However, with the law now expected to be implemented soon, some scientists and advocacy groups have expressed their doubts and pleaded with the Kuwaiti government to rethink its plans. In the New Scientist this week, geneticist Olaf Riess argued that the law was a "huge attack on genetic privacy" that seriously risks Kuwait's international reputation. "Compulsory DNA testing of all citizens and visitors sounds like an Orwellian nightmare, but this is the new reality in a wealthy Gulf state," Riess wrote.
A number of groups have reached out to Kuwait to ask it to amend the law. The European Society of Human Genetics, of which Riess is president, has also penned a letter to the prime minister and the Council of Ministers of the State of Kuwait urging them to amend the law. The United Nations' Human Rights Committee and the advocacy group Human Rights Watch have also voiced their concern and pleaded with Kuwait to change course.
While security concerns may have driven adoption of the law, a grand DNA database strikes many as overkill. “I suppose videotaping every user of a public toilet could be useful too, but that kind of intrusion is hardly necessary or proportionate, and neither is compulsory DNA testing," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said last year when the bill was approved.
"The terrorism argument is so spurious that even the least suspicious among us might begin to wonder whether there is an ulterior motive for this wholesale collection of DNA," Riess wrote for the New Scientist, arguing that DNA evidence would do little to dissuade an attacker or identify victims in a suicide bomb attack.
Kuwait's notoriously strict citizenship requirements are one potential area where a DNA database could serve a government's purpose. Traditionally, residents hoping for citizenship are required to trace their paternal bloodline down to the original Kuwaiti settlers living in the country in 1920. Many who live in Kuwait struggle to gain citizenship and the generous economic, political and legal benefits that come with it.
Most notably, there are the 100,000 stateless Bidun people in Kuwait, many of whom have lived without citizenship in the country for generations. Their name comes from the Arabic phrase "bidun jinsiya" or "without nationality." Some are the descendants of nomadic tribes who did not receive citizenship when Kuwait became independent in 1961, while others are Arabs who joined the Kuwaiti army in the 1970s and '80s but never gained citizenship.
The Kuwaiti government has long been concerned about the problems of a restive Bidun minority; the Bidun are often accused of being "illegal immigrants" who claim heritage in Kuwait in a bid to get benefits. It was recently revealed that Kuwait had been in talks with the tiny island nation of Comoros about purchasing "economic citizenship" for the Bidun — a move that such groups as Human Rights Watch say may make it easier to legally deport them.
DNA testing could also be used in an attempt to disprove links between Bidun families and original Kuwaitis — one recent report in the al-Shahed newspaper noted that security sources believe there was a surge in fraudulent citizenship claims after 1991. Experts doubt that the technology would actually be able to prove or disprove exact lineage and ethnicity, but Kuwait has used citizenship as a political tool before, stripping dissidents of citizenship.
“They might be using the idea of genetic testing as some sort of smokescreen, and actually they’re just going to test people who are from Bidun families and take their citizenship away,” Julia Harrington-Reddy, head of equality and inclusion at the Open Society Justice Initiative, told Fusion last month.
Other worries include the possibility that DNA samples could be used to determine the paternity of children in courts — a worrying thought in a country where adultery is illegal and subject to severe punishment under laws inspired by strict Islamic traditions.
Kuwaiti officials have attempted to play down these concerns. In January, a representative of the Interior Ministry told the Kuwait Times that the DNA database is only designed around crime and security issues and will not be used to test lineage. However, many in Kuwait seem to be worried: It's been reported that the government expects 250,000 citizens to refuse to take the tests. Real estate brokers have said they are seeing a wave of hurried property sales that may be linked to growing concern about citizenship.
Even if Kuwait's intentions are as good as they say, there is still reason to be concerned. For one thing, DNA evidence is hardly infallible — here, it's also worth pointing out the "false positive paradox" theory that suggests that when a database becomes extremely large, false positives can become more likely than authentic results. Additionally, the idea of an impractically large database that tracks even visitors to Kuwait rightfully makes people worried about the security of the data — what possibilities would there be if hackers got hold of the data?
Kuwait itself may well suffer: What tourist or business executive wants to spend time in the only country in the world that takes your DNA when you arrive?
"This could have a major impact on Kuwait’s standing as a conference host and hinder joint research projects," Riess writes.
But perhaps most important is the precedent that Kuwait would be setting. While many other nations have their own enormous DNA databases, they are usually restricted to suspects in criminal cases. In 2008, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that keeping innocent people's DNA on record breached their rights — a decision that led British authorities to change their policies.
Kuwait's proposal is something else entirely. If it goes forward, it's something that other countries, with their own concerns about security or citizenship or perhaps something else, may want to follow.
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